Last month NESTA published a paper called Digital Democracy: The tools for transforming political engagement. It’s a comprehensive and well written piece of work and we are glad we had the opportunity to contribute to it. Members of our team in Scotland have been delivering support, guidance and learning about digital engagement to governments for many years and we are glad issues from our front line experiences are highlighted in NESTA’s paper.
Digital Democracy includes interviews, research and case studies and it is summarised in 6 key themes. Every one of the 6 key themes is spot on: don’t engage for engagement’s sake; be clear about who you are engaging and why; digital should always complement traditional engagement; digital should not be seen as a cheap and easy fix and use tools that are useful and useable for your users (read: it’s not all about your organisation’s needs.) All the work we do is focused on bringing ‘better democracy everywhere’. That can’t be done without organisations and institutions designing and carrying out engagement that has the people they serve at the heart of it. Here’s our take on good digital engagement…
When engagement isn’t engaging
The first theme, ‘Don’t engage for engagement’s sake’ is a piece of advice that is important to us and it’s at the core of our first steps in planning digital engagement with organisations. It’s easy to spot engagement or consultation that hasn’t been planned well and if this takes place online, that lack of planning is amplified. Superficial engagement is a reputational risk and a great way to further distance people who have feel largely ignored or who have never engaged with you before. By reaching out to people online, you are creating a pathway to more people and new people. If their first experience with you isn’t great, well, you might lose them forever.
Give people a stake: There needs to be some kind of value exchange, that people will really only be motivated to spend time engaging with an organisation online if they are being given something of value and they are being valued themselves. What happens when you hand citizens low stake online ‘engagement’ or ‘consultation’? Boaty McBoatface happens.
Our case study: We work directly with councils and community groups all over Scotland to help them bring digital practice into their engagement and communication work. A key part of these conversations is establishing early and articulating well what people are being asked to have a say in or interact about. All of our digital work to date has included a deep dive into purpose, intention and audience identification before jumping online. Our role as an outside, objective and nonpartisan voice has been a really great benefit to the organisations we work with.
Engage people early: This is something we are starting to see more and more of but there’s a long way to go. Integrating digital engagement into existing engagement work is still new to most councils and community groups we are working with. Learning to use a new piece of tech, adjusting communication style and preparing for dynamic two way interaction can be a lot to take on, especially when resources are shrinking. Promoting an engagement opportunity, building up an online community and creating some kind of buzz about it are essential for successful online participation. We have seen instances of low or no online interaction being blamed on the platform or tool but there are three main reasons for failed digital engagement: the value exchange is poor (see above); the way something is being communicated is terrible (see below) or early engagement and promotion didn’t happen. The internet is not magic. Just because you put something online doesn’t mean folk automatically flock to it and it doesn’t mean they automatically want to spend time reading and writing for you.
Our case study: We helped Fife Council build digital engagement from end to end into their Cowdenbeath focused participatory budgeting (PB) process, Oor Bit. By using an online idea generation platform from the beginning of the PB process, Oor Bit Cowdenbeath saw a jump in participation that resulted in more people to engaging in a Fife Council budget consultation exercise than ever before. The online platform also allowed the Council to provide citizens a place to deliberate and to make opinions and input visible to everyone. The platform was promoted from the beginning as well- Facebook, email and face to face promotion went a long way to raise the profile of online engagement opportunities.
Communicate and provide feedback or have a feedback loop. It’s an unfortunate thing but it’s largely true that our institutions are not very good at telling us what they have or have not done with our ideas our input or our feedback. Planning engagement of any sort should include clear ways for people to know what is going to happen, what is happening and what happened at the end.
Our case study: With our support, Spirit of Ruchill/Possilpark integrated online voting into their participatory budgeting work for the first time this year. After the in person and online voting, they created a really nice visual breakdown of the vote to go up on social media along with a detailed written recap of the vote and how money was being distributed. Every participant who provided an email address was also contacted with a full result break down as soon as the results were published. So, within a matter of days, participants were able to see what impact their participation had on their community.
Process not project
As a hands on provider of support and guidance, the most important lesson we’ve learned so far in our digital engagement work is this: process, not project. If you’re thinking, ‘How do I use digital to do X’, you’ve missed the point and you’re focusing on the tool, not the audience or the problem. We like to see online/offline as a continuum of tools to support a cultural and democratic purpose.
If you need support thinking this through and planning and deploying a digital engagement initiative, just get in touch.